Jordan Prepares for Syrian Spillover

The visit by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Jordan on April 23 underscored the urgency of the Syrian crisis for the Hashemite Kingdom, writes Osama Al Sharif from Amman.

al-monitor Syrian refugees stand as they wait to receive humanitarian aid shopping vouchers at a distribution center of the World Food Program (WFP) organization in Amman, April 11, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

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us, syrian, jordan, free syrian army, baathists

Apr 23, 2013

Jordan is bracing itself for a spillover effect from the 2-year-old Syrian crisis that could have devastating consequences on the Hashemite Kingdom. There is a sense of apprehension in the capital Amman, especially after beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued what many interpreted as a brazen warning to Jordan. Assad accused Jordan of allowing thousands of fighters to cross the border into Syria, where armed rebels have been battling the regular army in an attempt to bring an end to the Baathist regime in Damascus.

Assad said that the crisis in Syria will not be limited to his country, adding that “the fire will not stop at our borders; the world knows Jordan is just as exposed as Syria.” It was not the first time that the Syrian president had pointed the finger at Amman for aiding the rebels. Jordanian Salafist groups have often said that hundreds of their followers were fighting against the regime in Syria. Few are known to have been killed there. The Western media had talked about weapon shipments, bought in Croatia by Gulf states, being sent across the Jordan borders to Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in the south of Syria.

Officially, Jordan insists that it is against meddling in internal Syrian affairs and King Abdullah has often said that a political solution to the crisis was needed. But the spillover effect had begun in the early days of the Syrian uprising. Jordan hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees in two camps in the north and east of the country. Officials and UN agencies give different figures on the number of refugees — roughly around 500,000 in and outside the camps — but both believe the number could easily reach a million if not more by the end of the year. Jordan has issued appeals for international aid and assistance to help it cope with the burden of hosting Syrian refugees.

On his visit last month to Jordan, President Barack Obama promised to provide $200 million in additional aid to Jordan to help it deal with the refugee problem. The challenge of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees comes as Jordan tries to maneuver itself out of difficult financial troubles that have fueled social and political protests.

The majority of Jordanians empathize with the Syrian uprising, but there are those who now view the war in Syria as a conspiracy to destroy a nationalist Arab regime and divide the country. Certainly the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist Islamist group that had pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda, and the fact that group may have Jordanian volunteers has caused alarm in Jordan. Politicians and analysts have warned that Islamist hard-liners in Syria may soon look to Jordan as their next stop. In recent months, Jordanian jihadist groups have become visibly outspoken.

But there are signs that Jordan may be preparing itself to get more involved in the Syrian crisis. A few days ago, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that 200 troops will be sent to Jordan “to work alongside Jordanian armed forces to improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios.” On Tuesday [April 23], Hagel stopped in Amman to hold talks with Jordanian officials after visiting Israel. Jordan’s news agency did not provide details but the Pentagon said both parties discussed “mutual concerns about the ongoing crisis in Syria, and continue to consult closely on a number of issues including chemical weapons and the demands posed by the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence.”  On the same day, a top official in Israel’s military intelligence claimed that Damascus had used chemical weapons against the rebels in a number of incidents in the last few months.

One of the possible scenarios Hagel mentioned could be a joint US-Jordanian intervention to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. The deployment of US troops has elicited strong condemnation from Jordan’s biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Iranian officials said the US move is an attempt to open a new front against Syria in Jordan. Hagel has called military intervention in Syria “an option, but an option of last resort.”

The US announcement was followed by a report in the French daily Le Figaro, alleging that Jordan has opened two corridors of its airspace to Israeli air force drones seeking to monitor the ongoing conflict in Syria. According to a western military source, King Abdullah made the decision in March during Obama’s visit to Jordan. So far, there was no official reaction in Amman to the Le Figaro report, which appeared as King Abdullah was making an official visit to Washington. He is expected to meet Obama on Friday [April 26].

It is no secret that Jordan and Israel have maintained high-level security and intelligence cooperation for years, but the Le Figaro allegation means that Jordan has cut all ties with the Assad regime and has now become a key player in efforts to bring it down.

Pentagon sources have denied press reports that the US has approved a Jordanian request to deploy two Patriot batteries along its border with Syria. The claim was first made in the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, which quoted an unnamed Jordanian source who claimed that the United States is shifting a Patriot missile battery from Qatar and one from Kuwait.

Regardless, Jordanian analysts believe there is an important shift in the country’s policy toward Syria, some saying that King Abdullah is abandoning an earlier position that rejected foreign intervention in the Syrian crisis. Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament (Senate) Taher Masri told lawmakers this week that he expected the Jordan-Syria border to witness accelerating developments soon in light of the ongoing situation in Syria. “The opportunity to realize a political solution for the Syrian crisis is weakening, which makes it necessary for Jordan to take precautions to deal with any possible developments to protect the kingdom and absorb these consequences wisely,” Masri was quoted as saying.

Just what does this mean for Jordan remains vague but it is sounding alarm bells across the country. The news that Lebanese Hezbollah fighters are now fighting FSA forces along the northern borders near the city of Homs means that the spillover effect has already started elsewhere. Jordan will be forced to make its position clearer in the coming weeks as well.

Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator specializing in Middle East issues based in Amman, Jordan. He can be reached at and on twitter @plato010

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